Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Worbey and Farrell dazzle & entertain with virtuosic piano-playing & quick-fire comedy

(Stephen Worbey & Kevin Farrell)

Sunday 1 March 2020

An interesting departure for the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra – a concert without the orchestra! They’ve already taken steps in that direction this season, with a concert performed by just their brass section, but this was a step further, to bring back Worbey & Farrell, the piano duo who performed with the orchestra back in 2018 to great acclaim. Knowing they’ve been struggling somewhat financially, it’s clear that they’ve had to think outside the box a little. On this occasion, they definitely pulled off a deft move – something different, that no doubt brought in a much needed new audience, but that in no way could have left the BPO regulars feeling short changed. 

Stephen Worbey and Kevin Farrell met at the Royal College of Music, and have established a highly successful career playing together over many years now – today’s concert also marked Kevin’s 50thbirthday. They pull off the tricky challenge of combining humour and classical music virtuosity, the key being that they excel at both. It is a tricky mix – often classical music comedy is either just not very funny, or it relies so much on in-jokes and knowledge that it’s exclusive and smugly self-congratulatory. Neither could be said about Worbey & Farrell in any way. Their onstage patter comes across as natural, whilst their anecdotes and asides never stray too far from the music itself. And they are genuinely funny, with well-constructed gags and jokes throughout. They of course owe a debt to the likes of Victor Borge, Liberace and even Les Dawson – and these all get affection name checks. We were even treated to a smattering of Dawson’s ‘wrong notes’ playing, as well as their own arrangement of Liberace’s classic showpiece, Boogie Woogie. Here they brought in an element of audience participation, and it was noticeable that when it was the turn of the under 20s to shout out, their ‘hey’ was impressively loud, the audience containing a refreshingly high percentage of children and younger people. 

Having announced their goal, to ‘cheer up piano recitals’, early proceedings included their impressive rendition of Khachaturian’s weighty Masquerade Waltz (which they jokingly said was on their new ‘Meditation’ album), and a delicately romantic arrangement of Ennio Morricone’s Chi Mai (which listeners of a certain age will remember as the theme tune to TVs The Life and Times of Lloyd George). After this, they switched on a camera positioned to pick up the keyboard, and more importantly, their hands, projected onto a large screen behind them. This remained for the rest of the concert, and made for a mesmerising insight into the technical complication of their arrangements. They share the one piano stool, and play with their arms mostly interlinked – so not the straightforward bass/treble split of standard four hands piano duets. As they explained, and deftly illustrated with some deconstructed explanation in their arrangement of John Williams’ Superman love theme and Jurassic Park, they aim to replicate as far as possible the full orchestral colours of the pieces they arrange. So Farrell often plays percussively at the bass of the keyboard, whilst brass and bassoon textures are brought out in the baritonal ranges. Strings feature in the mid-range, and the bright woodwind at the top end. Frequently, you could see their hands intertwined as they pass the melody lines around the ‘orchestra’.

And they demonstrated their true musical expertise, both in terms of virtuosity and understanding of orchestration and arranging in the two ‘big’ pieces of their programme – their own arrangements of Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. In both, their ability to combine the lush orchestral textures and detail of instrumentation with the virtuosity of the piano ‘solo’ part is astonishing. Their choice of other main work for the second half of the concert, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was also a masterstroke. Again, they could show off their skill in replicating orchestral colour, as well as adding their own humorous take on the tale (including a bizarrely northern duck) – and spoiler alert, they add their own happy ending!

With a few other gems thrown in for measure – Albeniz’s Asturias (Leyenda),complete with Kevin dampening the strings in the piano to replicate a guitar, as well as hammering chords from a standing position to great effect, and Piazzolla’s Libertango equally percussive – this was a hugely entertaining and action-packed programme from two highly consummate musicians as well as very funny showmen.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

CD Reviews - January & February 2020

Pianist Ivana Gavrić’s new disc begins with a sprightly performance of Haydn’s Piano Concerto No. 11, in which she is joined by the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Karin Hendrickson. Her opening Vivace is full of energy, and the central slow movement has delightful grace and a sensitive touch. In both movements, Gavrić uses fitting cadenzas composed by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, one drawing on a Bosnian theme – more of that later. The finale is lively, and Gavrić plays with great poise and wit. Gavrić was inspired by the possibility that the concerto’s finale might have been based on a Bosnian folk melody. The melody’s origins may in fact be less authentic than we might hope, but nevertheless this led Gavrić to approach friend and collaborator Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980) to write a piano concerto using a Bosnian folk song as one of its themes, this time definitely an authentic tune, the unofficial anthem of Sarajevo (where Gavrić was born), Kad ja pođoh na Bentbašu’ (a rendition of which concludes the disc).  But first, Gavrić includes six French pieces written in 1909 to mark the 100th anniversary of Haydn’s death, as well as Frances-Hoad’s Stolen Rhythm, written using the motif of Haydn’s name a further 100 years later, in 2009. Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) Hommage à Haydn is beautifully rich, essentially a short set of variations, whereas Paul Dukas’ (1865-1935) Prelude élégiaque is sensuously liquid, and Gavrić’s touch is delicate and warm in both, and in the brief but delightful Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) which follows. Frances-Hoad’s sparky Stolen Rhythm follows, and although again brief, it has an energetic drive, exploiting the extremes of the keyboard in its continuous rhythmic pulse. Gavrić returns to the French set, with Vincent d’Indy’s (1851-1931) relatively straightforward Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn followed by Reynaldo Hahn’s (1874-1947) Thème varié sur le nom de Haydn, a typically deft miniature, and Charles-Marie Widor’s (1844-1937) lively Fugue sur le nom d’Haydn to finish the set. Gavrić brings out the varied character of these pieces with great attention to detail, and the placing of Frances-Hoad’s contribution in the middle of the set creates a great set up for ‘Between the Skies, the River and the Hills’, a three movement piano concerto by Frances-Hoad. Frances-Hoad draws on inspiration from the Haydn Concerto, the aforementioned folk tune, and the Nobel Prize-winning historical novel The Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andrić. The opening movement has great swirls of watery running scales from the piano under slow moving, lumbering strings and slippery woodwind, creating a very striking atmosphere from the outset. The pace quickens, as the floodwaters rise, before the sun breaks through at the end. The central scherzando has great quirky energy, with more than a whiff of Shostakovich in its dancing forward propulsion. The slow finale presents that Bosnian theme in moving simplicity, passed around the orchestra, with the piano’s interjections building in intensity and urgency, ending with an impassioned candenza, performed with incredible intensity here by Gavrić. The Bosnian theme’s poignant simplicity brings this beautifully constructed programme to a suitably sensitive conclusion. Highly recommended.


The most substantial work on a new release of works by British composer Howard Skempton (b.1947) is Man and Bat, a setting of a poem by D. H. Lawrence. Here, baritone Roderick Williams is joined by members of Ensemble 360, who feature throughout the recording. For this work, piano, string quartet and double bass provide a whirling, lilting background to the intriguing text about a man’s lengthy battle with a trapped bat. Skempton achieves a sense of insistent fluttering in the largely incessant rhythmic accompaniment, and Williams communicates the drama and understated dark humour of the text with great intensity. The collection includes another setting of a Lawrence poem, this time for tenor, within a three-movement cycle, The Moon is Flashing. The first two brief movements set poems by Skempton himself and Chris Newman, as introductions to the more substantial Lawrence poem, Snake. Originally written for full orchestra, Skempton has arranged the work for chamber ensemble, with Ensemble 360 providing clarinet, violin, cello and piano, along with tenor James Gilchrist. The titular opening movement is subtle and sensuous, whilst A Day in 3 Wipes that follows has a musical theatre flavour as Gilchrist communicates its contemporary story with directness. Snake meanwhile has dark menace, and Gilchrist shows considerable command of the depth of his range, which Skempton exploits to great effect. This is preceded by Skempton’s Piano Concerto, in a version for piano and string quartet. Set over five short movements, there is a stillness and ethereal atmosphere in the opening two, followed by a gently bouncing central movement. Ethereal mystery returns for the fourth movement, before a lightly jazzy finale. Pianist Tim Horton plays with lightness of touch and is matched with clarity of ensemble from the string quartet. The string quartet is joined by flute, clarinet and harp for the final work on the recording, Eternity’s Sunrise. Here calmness reigns, bringing the collection to a serene conclusion. If Skempton is new to you, this is a great place to start, and the performances from Williams, Gilchrist and Ensemble 360 could not provide a better advert for his atmospheric, accessible and consistently inventive music.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, January & February 2020)

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

No nonsense joy in Kissin's Beethoven at the Barbican

Evgeny Kissin
© Felix Broede

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Thursday 6 February 2020

Barbican Hall, London

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827):
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 'Pathétique'
15 Variations and a Fugue, Op. 35 'Eroica'
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 'Tempest'
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 'Waldstein'
Bagatelle for piano, Op.126 No.6 in E flat major
Six variations on an original theme for piano in D major, Op.76
Bagatelle for piano, Op.33 no. 5 in C major
Six Écossaises for piano, WoO 83

Evgeny Kissin
© Nick Boston
'Kissin took no prisoners – definitely not Beethoven for the fainthearted, yet performances full of urgent energy and evident joy in the music'.

The 'Pathétique' Sonata:
'It is a testament to Kissin’s unquestionably phenomenal technical prowess that nothing ever disrupted the momentum here'.

The Eroica Variations:
'Kissin carried us through their journey with a great sense of the overall architecture'.

'The Tempest was impatient and full of breathless energy ... The Waldstein was uncluttered and surprisingly smooth'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Thrilling Shostakovich with a heart of desperation from the LSO and Noseda

Gianandrea Noseda
© Mark Allan
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)

Thursday 30 January 2020

Barbican Hall, London

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Symphony No. 1 in D major, 'Classical', Op. 25
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, 'Strassburg', K216
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750: Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006, Gigue
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881): Khovanshchina: Prelude 'Dawn on the Moscow River'
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70

'Noseda and the LSO achieved a good balance here between accentuating the wit and edge, whilst maintaining “classical” precision and simplicity'.

'Christian Tetzlaff’s Mozart was warm and expressive, performing with a lively bounce in his step'.

'Noseda shaped the dynamics and brought out the detail of this brief but striking miniature'.

'Noseda notched up the tension, driving on to a scream before the grotesque march, and then the final sudden switch into the breathless conclusion'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Christian Tetzlaff/Gianandrea Noseda/London Symphony Orchestra
© Nick Boston

Gianandrea Noseda/London Symphony Orchestra
© Nick Boston

Friday, 20 December 2019

CD Reviews - November & December 2019

Young Kentucky-born violinist Tessa Lark treads a well-worn path with the title of her debut recording, Fantasy. However, her choice of repertoire here is far from predictable, with three of Telemann’s Fantasies, and her own Appalachian Fantasy nestling amongst the more familiar Schubert Fantasie and Ravel’s Tzigane. Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was an incredibly prolific composer, and yet his work is still surprisingly often overlooked. The twelve Fantasies for solo violin are gems, and whilst clearly showing influences of Bach and Corelli, they have their own distinctive voice, and Lark gives us three of them here. The dark Grave of the first contrasts with its dancing Allegro sections, and the fourth has great energy in its outer sections. The fifth is perhaps the showiest of Lark’s selection here, but it too has a brief moment of calm in its brief Andante before the final dashing Allegro. In all of these, Lark’s tone is bright and full of life, and she brings out the challenging counterpoint and frequent double-stoppings with poise and ease. Schubert’s Fantasie for Violin and Piano is an extended single movement (at around 25 minutes in all), although it does have a number of distinct sections, and Schubert draws on one of his own songs, Sei mir gegrüsst for the basis of four variations that form the bulk of the piece, following a beautifully singing opening and a playful allegretto, with violin and piano in canon. Lark and Amy Yang (piano) enjoy the playfulness here, and both instruments have a lot to show off about in the challenging variations. Apart from wanting a tad more richness of tone in the opening, there is little to fault here, and this is definitely a performance of equals, with Yang relishing the rich textures of Schubert’s writing for the piano. Lark then follows the Schubert with a real treat – her own composition, Appalachian Fantasy, highlighting another side to her musical heritage as a traditional fiddler. With her violin retuned to produce the traditional open string double-stopping drones, she draws on the melody from the Schubert, as well as bringing in traditional Appalachian tunes, such as Cumberland Gap and Bonaparte’s Retreat, in a fabulously infectious demonstration of her phenomenal talent here. Fritz Kreisler’s (1875-1962) Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, despite the mouthful of a title, is a typically delightful Kreisler encore concoction, harking back to the heyday of the Viennese waltz, and Lark and Yang give this warmth and a sense of sweet nostalgia. Ravel’s Tzigane is a bravura showpiece for violin, although again, the piano part is not to be sniffed at, and Yang rises to its challenges well. Lark throws off the virtuosic gypsy flourishes with appropriate abandon, making this a lively and exuberant finish to the disc. All in all, this is a highly impressive calling card, amply demonstrating the range of Lark’s talents.

Various. 2019. Fantasy. Tessa Lark, Amy Yang. Compact Disc. First Hand Records. FHR86.

You may have had the opportunity to catch Musica Secreta performing in the Brighton Early Music Festival, and launching their new CD, From Darkness Into Light, which includes the complete Lamentations of Jeremiah by Antoine Brumel (c.1460-1512/13), recently discovered by Musica Secreta co-director, Laurie Stras, in a Florentine manuscript. An abbreviated form of the work, consisting of just two verses and refrain, have been known and performed for many years, but incredibly, Laurie Stras found the complete set, with no fewer than an additional seventeen verses, hiding in plain sight in a sixteenth century manuscript. As a close supporter and friend of Musica Secreta, I can’t claim complete independence in terms of a review of their performances here (although they are stunning!), but this is incredible music by any measure, and the Brumel is joined on recording with a selection of music taken from a convent manuscript, including works by Josquin des Prez (c.1450/55-1521) and Loyset Compère (c.1445-1518). All the music is sung exquisitely here by the nine female voices of Musica Secreta, accompanied by Claire Williams on organ and Alison Kinder on viol. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Various. 2019. From Darkness Into Light: Antoine Brumel, The complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday. Musica Secreta, Deborah Roberts, Laurie Stras. Compact Disc. Obsidian Records CD719

The vocal ensemble Fieri ConsortBREMF Live! alumni, have released their third album, focussing on the music of Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), ‘Virtuosa of Venice’. This gives them the chance to show off their considerable talents in more soloistic repertoire, with works for one, two or at most three voices. They are joined by Toby Carr (theorbo/baroque guitar), Aileen Henry (baroque harp) and Harry Buckoke (viola da gamba), and Carr and Henry also present delightful solo pieces by Giovanni Kapsberger and Ascanio Maione respectively, as well as a beautifully delicate duet from Buckoke and Carr by Bartolomeo Selma y Salaverde. Strozzi was one of the most prolific composers of her time, and the selection of pieces here demonstrates her remarkable expressive range. Sopranos Lucinda Cox and Hannah Ely have beautifully clear and blended voices in the sweetly flirtatious ‘I baci’ (Kisses), whilst Ely’s pairing with bass baritone Ben McKee in the more racy ‘Morso e bacio’ (Bite and kiss) has suitably more bite. Meanwhile Cox joins mezzo Nancy Cole for the gently throbbing ‘Sospira, respira’ (Sigh, breathe). The entwined virtuosic lines of ‘Il ritorno’  (The Return) are delivered with great sensitively and skill by Cox and tenor Tom Kelly. Tenors Kelly and Josh Cooter have great fun with the comically melodramatic ‘Al battitor di bronzo’ (To a brass door-knocker), whilst Ely enjoys the occasional unexpected sensuous chromaticisms amid the dancing lines of Benedetto Ferrari’s ‘Amanti’ (Lovers), with its swinging baroque guitar accompaniment. Monteverdi’s sweet ‘Si dolce e’l tormento’ (So sweet is the torment), as well as Nicolò Fontei’s gentle duet ‘Dio ti salvi pastor’ (God save you Shepherd) receive expressive readings. The disc ends with the passionately moving ‘Lagrime me’ (My tears) from Strozzi, sung with moving expression by Ely, followed appropriately by Cole, Kelly and McKee singing Strozzi’s ‘Conclusione dell’opera’ with great warmth and tenderness. A wonderfully constructed programme, demonstrating the variety of expression in Strozzi’s music, as well as the outstanding talents of these singers and players – highly recommended!

Various. 2019. Barbara Strozzi, Virtuosa of Venice. Fieri Consort. Compact Disc. Fieri Records FIER003VOV.

First Hand Records have a fascinating project on the go remastering early EMI stereo recordings from the 1950s. The third volume focusses on music for harpsichords – not just one, but for most of the disc, four. As contemporary harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani informs us in his disc notes, the instruments of that time, known as ‘revival harpsichords’, were hefty beasts, with iron frames and pedals more akin to pianos, rather than the more historically faithful reproductions that the early music movement has led us to expect. Surprisngly, these weighty instruments actually were capable of much less in terms of volume, so in recording with the Pro Arte Orchestra here, the harpsichordists took advantage of techniques such as shifting register to bring out melodies, and lots of sudden dampening effects. The orchestra also has to play pretty quietly most of the time, even though the harpsichords would have been very closely recorded. And the four harpsichordists? George Malcolm (whose own Variations on a Theme of Mozart appears here) was a conductor and composer as well as a harpsichordist, and Thurston Dart was a musicologist, and key figure in the British early music revival. They are joined by two Australians – pianist Eileen Joyce, more known for weighty romantic piano repertoire, and Denis Vaughan, conductor and performer. The four gave annual concerts together until the early 1960s. Here they play Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto for 4 harpsichords (arranged by Dart), as well as Bach’s arrangement of another Vivaldi Concerto, and Bach’s Concerto for 3 harpsichords (with Vaughan on continuo).The orchestral sound is definitely dated, with smooth strings, and plenty of vibrato, although there is still a surprisingly light energy for most of the time, and the jangling harpsichords, particularly in the faster movements creates a lively soundworld that takes the listener along on an enjoyable journey. Following this are four short solo pieces performed by another harpsichordist, the American, Ralph Kirkpatrick. His playing is definitely less showy than the quartet, and he achieves more of the expressive potential of the instrument in the Sweelinck and Pachelbel in particular. The disc (very generous at nearly 85 minutes) ends with a Bach Cantata, ‘Bide with us’, sung in English by the Bach Choir and unnamed soloists, with the Jacques Orchestra conducted by Reginald Jacques. The singing – both choral and solo – is overly warbly and without the clarity of focus we would now expect in such repertoire. However, there is some delightfully delicate playing from the solo oboist and cellist in the second and third movements. Overall, a fascinating insight here into a different period in music-making, and well worth it for the Kirkpatrick and some of the livelier 4 harpsichord movements.

Various. 2019. Early Stereo Recordings Volume 3. Thurston Dart, Eileen Joyce, George Malcolm, Denis Vaughan, The Pro Arte Orchestra, Boris Ord, The Bach Choir, Jacques Orchestra, Reginald Jacques. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR60

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, November & December 2019)

Monday, 2 December 2019

The RPO making sense of Shostakovich: a thrilling Ninth, along with dazzling Prokofiev

Kian Soltani
© Juventino Mateo

Kian Soltani (cello)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Alexander Shelley (conductor)

Thursday 28 November, 2019

Cadogan Hall, London

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936): Concert Waltz No. 1 in D major, Op. 47
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Sinfonia Concertante in E minor (Symphony-Concerto), Op. 125
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Music for Children, Op. 65 No. 10, March
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887): Prince Igor: Polvtsian Dances, No. 17
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70

Alexander Shelley & the RPO
© Nick Boston
'Shelley gave well-pitched introductions, supplying some contextual detail and listening tips with an easy manner'.

'Shelley and the RPO took great delight in the swirling string melodies and sweet woodwind decorations, communicating a sense of fun and delight in its simplicity'.

'Kian Soltani gave an astonishingly commanding performance of this phenomenally challenging work'.

'Shelley and the RPO were on great form here, with Shelley setting quick tempi and the RPO responding with accuracy and tight ensemble'.

'The finale was suitably thrilling'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Kian Soltani & the RPO
© Nick Boston

Friday, 22 November 2019

Hefty Bruckner eclipsed by Norman's Grammy-nominated 'Sustain'

Gustavo Dudamel/LA Phil
© Mark Allan/Barbican

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel (condutor)

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Barbican Hall, London

Andrew Norman (b.1979): Sustain (2018)

Anton Bruckner (1824-96): Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, 'Romantic'
(1874, rev 1878-80, ed Nowak)

'The cumulative effect, with ever-faster collisions of chromatic cascades swirling around the orchestra, is captivating, oppressive and thrilling at the same time'.

'The orchestral players ... were totally on top of the serious ensemble demands it presents'

'Dudamel and the LA Phil certainly gave full weight to the climaxes, loud and full-bodied, with a particularly blazing conclusion to the finale'.

'A powerful overall performance'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Andrew Norman, Gustavo Dudamel & the LA Phil
© Nick Boston